There's not a lot of fun you can have with a pocketful of dirt unless you're a little kid without the experience to know that there's more to life than slipping down slides and running around the sandbox. The same is true of Codemasters' latest offering, a Colin McCrae-inspired off-road racing game, which manages to capture exactly none of the gritty excitement of the off-roading on which it's based. DiRT 2 is a sludgy, boring experience without the benefit of any exciting mechanics, innovations, shiny graphics or detailed physics to bring it past the excitement level of mud.
The design of the game is simplicity incarnate. Career mode is the staple mode, with the only other offerings a quick-race and local multiplayer. Unfortunately, career is kind of a misnomer because it is essentially a hand-guided walk through the available tracks. The mode would be adequate, taking players through each of the game's roughly half dozen race modes in seemingly random order and unlocking different countries as races are won, but the menu presentation is so bare and the variety so superficial that it becomes a slogging chore. The main menu is simply a map, with locations highlighted in random colors, and the cursor auto-resets to the newest obstacle. Almost all of the events are simple races against incredibly incompetent opponents, although there are also checkpoint and time-attack modes against invisible racers.
The problem with every single race, though, is the pathetic attempt at emulating an off-road experience. The surfaces range from asphalt and gravel to snow, and while there are slight tweaks to handling on each surface, there is nothing drastic and no "feel" of unpredictability normally associated with these surfaces. Turns become slightly easier on snow than on gravel, but there are no drastic spin-outs or rude awakenings when switching between surfaces. There is some sense of speed, but it feels almost detached from the ground you're rolling over, as if it were a hover-craft racing game. Drifting feels equally divorced from reality and is hardly ever necessary due to the title's easy turning. The only problems with handling come when you accidentally bump a car, which can either graphically glitch your taillight a few feet away from your vehicle or send you careening at top speed at an inconvenient angle. A sharp hit from any other car at the wrong time can be an easy death sentence, dooming you to a trip off the path and subsequently stopping your car and returning you to the determined roadway.
The lineup of vehicles is also unimpressive, featuring six heavy hitters seemingly picked at random and a few other smaller cars thrown in for good measure. They feel remarkably similar, and to make things incredibly inane, your opponents all drive the exact same car that you chose for each race. It takes all incentive out of vehicle choice except for simple aesthetics. Even the appearance customization is pretty lacking, letting you choose from a set of a few colors in a handful of shades, and not allowing for decals or multi-color choices. There is a minimalistic upgrade system fueled by in-game money, with some user-unfriendly symbols representing traction, acceleration and other typical racing stats that don't feel like they have any impact on the races.
To be fair, though, the most glaring problem is the complete ineffectiveness of the AI. Even racing newbies should be able to handle almost every mission on Professional difficulty, the highest difficulty available. The computer opponents are either blundering or designed to trail just behind you at all times, but either way, they are just no fun to run against. They're so fairly balanced against you at all time that it just seems … unfair. Even when you mess up a turn early in the race, they seem to let up on the gas just to let you get back into their bumper zone and overtake them over insurmountable odds. Nothing is impossible to overcome in this game, matching the bland handling and bland environments to equally flavorless competition.
About the only bright spot in the dull global trek is the soundtrack, which is varied and surprisingly clear even without the aid of headphones. There are plenty of vocal, punkish tracks that match the theme of the game, and almost all of them are moderate enough to avoid alienating players who aren't fans of the genre. Perhaps this "sell-out" sound is a downside for hard-core listeners, but it's perfect to draw in a wide audience without entirely forsaking the game image.
Another speck of sunshine in DiRT's dreary image is the level editor, which is surprisingly robust for being entirely a top-down affair. You're given a godlike perspective over a small, medium or large area, and the tools let you create inclines, slopes, change terrain, draw in paths and so on. The stylus-driven creation is remarkably easy to pull off, assuming you've read the instruction booklet. The tutorial is lacking at best, the exact inverse of well-explained but complex LittleBigPlanet. It's user-friendly, but only to users willing to invest in some experimentation and some reading of the instruction book.
Unfortunately, the lack of Wi-Fi connectivity hobbles the track-making aspect before it can even try to hop into an off-road vehicle. Local multiplayer just isn't adequate on handheld platforms, requiring one divine coincidence too many. The lack of even a track upload server is beyond disappointing; it cuts off a large chunk of the potential fun that could have been had with this title. If Mario Kart DS managed to achieve the infrastructure for Wi-Fi races before the Wii could, it's unbelievable that the developers couldn't have put a little effort into online functionality for this more modern game. It's just another symptom of DiRT 2's throwaway nature.
While there is some basic aspect of arcade racing competency laid out by DiRT 2, it's simply not a worthwhile purchase. There is no individuality or unique feel to any of the supposedly varied tracks. The mission variety is a thinly veiled joke, and the graphics aren't enough to make you forget that you're not having any fun. Without even the ability to share the experience with other people across the world or work toward making tracks that are fun for everyone, it just comes away as a pointless waste of money.Score: 5.0/10
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